Monday, August 24, 2009

FACTSPLOITATION: The Mysterious Monsters

The exploitation field of filmmaking is surprisingly varied. There's the oft parodied blaxploitation. There’s its white trash equivalent known as hicksploitation. And of course, the most odious of them all: krautsploitation! Today we’re going to talk about my favorite breed of sploitation: “factsploitation”.

I don’t know if anybody has ever used the term “Factsploitation” but I’m going to pretend I invented it. “Factsploitation” films are documentaries that attempt to support a sensational thesis by using factual information or completely non-sensical bullshit. The emphasis is usually on the latter. Factsploitation films are not snuffumentaries like Faces of Death or gross-outs like Mondo Cane. Factsploitation films have loftier goals. They are films that are not content to simply show us a narrative in which a monster attacks or an alien invades. They want us to believe in the reality of monsters and aliens. Ghosts, UFO’s, sasquatches, talking plants, and the Book of Revelation are pressing issues in the world of Factsploitation.

One of the greatest sources of Factsploitation was Sunn Schick Pictures. Sunn Schick made a wide variety of cinematic and televisual detritus including “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams”, “The Greatest Heroes of the Bible”, and the Donald Sutherland Arctic classic Bear Island. Sunn also joined the R-rated horror boom in the 80’s with the very famous Cujo and the much less famous The Boogens. Sunn’s Factsploitation features included The Bermuda Triangle, In Search of the Historical Jesus, and today’s film: 1976's THE MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS a.k.a BIGFOOT: THE MYSTERIOUS MONSTER.

I disagree with the title card. I believe The Mysterious Monsters to be a fairer title because Nessie is also featured. Bigfoot is the star of the show but Nessie has enough of a role that I think it's a little rude to only include one monster in the title. Don't anachronistic plesiosaurs have feelings too?

The film begins with host Peter "Do you like movies about gladiators?" Graves talking about how he was at first skeptical but "tantalized" (strange choice of word) by reports of bigfoot. If you think he remains skeptical at the end of this, then send me an e-mail about my rich Nigerian uncle's penile enlargement pills. Peter explains that bigfeet have been sighted all over the United States.

After we've established the prevelance of bigfoot reports (how could so many people be lying?HMMMMM?) Peter starts telling the viewer about the recent discoveries of animals such as the Okapi, the panda, and the gorilla. He mentions that old cryptozoology chestnut, the coelacanth. This is all okay. Not a very persuasive argument for sasquatch but as a list of 20th century zoological discoveries it's legit. Shortly after this is when you realize that Peter Graves is your tour guide on a trip to bullshit island. Even by paranormal documentary standards things are about to get goofy. You see, added on the list of recently discovered animals is the Loch Ness Monster.

At this point, the movie focuses on Nessie. The movie shows us some purported nessie photographs, all of which were later revealed to be phony. One photograph is a well known hoax involving a toy submarine and some clay. One photograph was a composite fraud. One photograph looks just like a plesiosaur flipper but was later revealed to be a heavily retouched picture of lake junk. I only wished they showed the one that is actually a picture of a dog holding a stick. One of the tricks of Factsploitation is to save on creature effects by simply showing some dodgy photos or an expert and a drawing. Nessies were a little too costly for Sunn Schick so some crap photos, Nessie hunter Tim Dinsdale, and a watercolor had to suffice.

In 1952, John Cobb attempted to break the water speed record at Loch Ness. The film makes the logical conclusion that the fatal explosion that cut short his attempt (and life) was the fault of the monsters. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that he was going 200 mph in a boat. Watch one of those GREATEST MOMENTS OF TERROR CAUGHT ON FILM or whatever shows on SpikeTV or TruTv. They all have speedboat races. It's a sport rife with bloopers and tragedy. Monsters are not needed.

After accusing Nessie of murder, the film makes a pronouncement so big that even by pseudoscience standards is pretty damn silly. The disembodied voice of Peter Graves says “Once rejected by scientists and skeptics, the Loch Ness Monsters are now believed to live in this lake…but still rejeceted by scientists and skeptics are the giant monsters that dwell in the forests of North America.” I actually agree with the logic in that. If Nessie is real, then maybe bigfoot is too. The problem is that Peter is not being totally honest with the whole "once rejected by scientists" thing. After closing the book on Nessie, we return to our regularly scheduled baloney sasquatch reenactment....

This is photographic evidence of one of the greatest screams in monster movie history. The reenactment it is taken from is one of the two best bits of the movie. An actress pretending to be a babysitter (or is she a babysitter pretending to be an actress--in the world of Factsploitation nothing is as it seems) is waiting for her father to pick her up. The family she works for must be crazy survivalists because she's waiting in the middle of the woods. Dad comes to pick her up and on the car ride home they see bigfoot. Screaming and Peter Graves voiceover ensue. The scene is actually well done and the documentarian tone gives it an extra chill that something like Snowbeast does not have. The bigfoot costume is not great but not terrible. The biggest problem is that it looks like sasquatch shaves the areas around his nipples (see the photo that leads this article).

The face on the costume is fairly decent by cheapo-ape man standards. This shot is from a different reenactment that, like the majority of reenactments in The Mysterious Monsters, is oppressively dull. The narration is way more interesting. Mr. Graves explains that the Pacific Northwest has a rich history of bigfoot activity. Teddy Roosevelt himself recounted stories of wild men told to him by old pioneers. Peter speaks of a family of renegade squatches that kidnapped a 19th century trapper. He elaborates on the incident saying "one scientist" declared that this trapper demonstrated knowledge of primate society he could not possibly have known. Just one scientist? Isn't that admitting that there was only one crackpot who was willing and gullible enough to lend credence to an old drunk's ape terrors? It's a rare moment of honesty from Peter Graves.

Are the bigfoot peaceful beings in tune with nature or are they scary manbeasts waiting for the next unwary traveler to wander into the woods? The film is not sure. Most of the reenactments are pure scare tactics but scenes like the one above show bigfeet living peacefully in their sylvan kingdom. Factsploitations love to throw in a little eco-friendly "Love Your Mother" gibberish in between the psychics and second rate Yetis.

The film pays special attention to the plaster casts of sasquatch footprints. The anthropologist Grover Krantz, who is definitely the only legit scientist in the movie, talks about some of the finer points concerning the prints. Peter then meets with a "professor" that reminded me of the academic stooges in the stories found in e-mails from Christian relatives. This bogus professor snidely tells Graves that there must be physical evidence. Faith is foolish! Only empirical evidence is acceptable! Peter goes to yet another actor portraying a scientist. This one is much more attractive and friendly. He's also wearing a lab coat. This doctor informs our host that new discoveries are being made everyday. We should not eliminate possibilities just because they do not conform to our preconceived notions. That fake scientist in a fake lab coat does have a point. You should always keep an open mind. When The Mysterious Monsters starts to make sense, however, your mind is a little too open.

The film also introduces us to something admittedly phony. The man, whose boots and fake feet are pictured, was a bigfoot country local. He was talking to some visiting scientists when he told them that he did not believe in the monster. The bigfoot geeks told him that he was a hick and a moron. The man and his buddy decided to make some feet. The truth is that you do not need anything as fancy as big wooden feet to scam these people.

Peter is so serious because he has a very serious subject he would like to share with us. Mr. Graves would like to take a moment of our time to speak on the topic of a UFM: Unidentified Fecal Matter. The haunting look in this photograph is an actor realizing he's getting paid to talk about sasquatch poop. Extras in lab coats look into microscopes while the narration assures us that the poop came from an unknown animal. Since I've never seen a Time magazine cover from 1976 that reads "HOLY SHIT! SCIENCE AND CRAP DOCUMENTARY PROVES BIGFOOT'S EXISTENCE!" I will assume that this fecal matter wasn't the smoking gun they were looking for.

The poop is bad science but it at least involves microscopes and test tubes. The next bigfoot evidence does not even pretend to be anywhere near science. It involves a psychic detective. Pete brings the detective a large box and the psychic uses his powers to figure out that the box contains something sasquatch related (footprint cast). A safe bet considering he was being filmed for a sasquatch movie. The detective also draws a picture based on the juju he received from the box's mysterious content....

Lamest bigfoot picture ever. It's just a guy with a beard. The detective also detected that this creature stunk. The beard plus the stinkiness suggests the shocking possibility that bigfoot may in fact be a hipster d-bag. Peter should have asked the psychic if the creature had ever worn an ironic scarf.

If you thought hypnotic regression therapy was just for detecting Satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction, then you're woefully ignorant. It can also be used to discover hidden bigfoot encounters. The next bit of bigfoot evidence is provided by this psychologist, a patient, and the doctor's unintentionally hilarious hypno-wheel...

The film leaves the experts behind to return to the greatest pieces of evidence for bigfoot: eye witness accounts. The film's last great reenactment is tremendously fun. It's a full blown sasquatch home invasion epic topped only by a similar scene in The Legend of Boggy Creek, the Citizen Kane of cryptozoological factsploitation. A terrified young couple's house is under seige by an agressive bigfoot. There's a scene where the brute's arm punches through a window that actually made me jump the first time I saw it. When the boyfriend opens the door he finds and rather striking visitor.

The scene ends with a close up and a freeze frame of the face of bigfoot. Pete doesn't let us know what happened after the encounter. Did bigfoot storm in and dismember them? Did it run away frightened? Did the guy shoot it? Did it just want to give them a copy of Watchtower? Peter Graves ain't telling.

Speaking of shooting bigfoot...the film details three instances of bigfoot's encounters with fire arms. Each time, the gun owners lower the weapons because they just couldn't bring themselves to fire at the beast. That's a pretty good system. If you see something that is person shaped and walks on two legs, then don't shoot it. It's a great way to avoid any pesky manslaughter or homicide charges.

The film ends with Peter Graves hoping that one day bigfoot will be “as much a part of our life as the gorilla and the Loch Ness Monster.” That quote basically sums up the appeal of watching a Factsploitation film. Exploitation films are watched because of their audacity and their unintentional humor. These films have a pretense of seriousness that other B-movies don't have or don't sell as well. That makes them even sillier.

The world of Factsploitation is not fictional but our world. When people left a theatre, they could be reasonably sure that they would not be eaten by giant rats. Factsploitation films are so much fun because they take our normal world and, with the help of some fake experts and bogus eyewitnesses, they turn it into a place populated with real monsters like Nessie and bigfoot. That's great special effects.

Coming soon...The Force Beyond, The Late Great Planet Earth, and In Search of Noah's Ark.

Friday, August 21, 2009


In the excellent anthology State by State, Tony Horwitz writes of Virginia’s status as the mortuary state. He’s right. As far as states go, we’ve had a lot of bad times here in the old dominion. We’ve had Indian battles. We saw action in the Revolutionary War. Most of the Civil War was fought in Virginia. Plus slavery was in full swing. That’s a heap of human misery in the land of ham and tobacco.

In Virginia, Civil War junk is everywhere. I live in the former capital of the Confederacy. A place where a giant bronze Jefferson Davis is a familiar sight. I grew up in rural Virginia. If you dig in your yard you may find Yankee killin' bullets. I’ve always been bored by it, which is strange when you consider that bloodbaths and massacres aren’t really that dull. Maybe it was the overexposure that made brother v. brother so uninteresting to me…or maybe it was the fact that I never had a set of CIVIL WAR NEWS trading cards.

Topps released the Civil War News card set in 1962 to coincide with the war’s centennial. They got away with selling overblown gore to kids by calling the cards educational, which they are to a certain extent. The cards certainly demonstrate how awesomely destructive the whole thing was. On the back, there are facts about battles and dates. It was a win-win. The kids got something ridiculously violent and the adults could take pride in their children’s interest in American history.

Here are the most insane cards that are set in my home state of Virginia:

Don’t that make you wanna fly a rebel flag and offend some of the neighbors? If only park rangers would incorporate more crushing and impaling on their plaques….

Topps had success with Civil War News so they put out another set of educational gore cards in 1962. This time they were educating children about the threat of Martian domination with the classic Mars Attacks! set:

In 1989, Topps did a set called Dinosaurs Attack! that is even trashier than Mars Attacks!

For the complete sets of Civil War News and Mars Attacks! go here.

For more on Dinosaurs Attack! (which is without exaggeration one of mankind’s greatest achievements) go here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taxonomy of Terror

If you look at the right of the blog, you will notice that (like the immortal Vault of Horror) I have created a list of what I believe to be the best in the genre. What I have done differently, however, is put each list in a category of my own creation. This taxonomy is loose but I think every horror film has somewhere to go. Here's the explanation:

The Best Supernatural Threat Films

This one is pretty self-explanatory: demons, ghosts, witches, Satan etc. These films have threats which do not have real world or science fictional explanations.

The Best Zombie Films

The zombie film is distinct enough that it has its own conventions and concerns. It gets its own category evan though many of the films could easily fit into other categories.

The Best Science-Is-Not-Your-Friend Films

These films could also be put into other categories but they are united by a strong distrust of science and human technological progress. The conflicts in these films could all be avoided if man did not meddle in things he (or she) was meant to leave alone.

The Best Bloodsucker Films

See the explanation for the zombie category.

The Best Non-Supernatural-Killer Films

Features killers and madmen without heavy science fiction or occult overtones. Just psychos with no mutants or demons.

The Best Non-Occult-Invasion-of-the-Other Films

This ungainly category is for films which feature an outside threat that is non-occult in origin. The threat may be science fictional (The Thing) or it may be an established part of nature (Jaws).

The Best Invasion-of-the-Inner Films

Mostly non-occult threats that originate from within the human psyche or body. Transformation is the key theme. Sometimes they involve external forces but these films all demonstrate the unpleasantness within the human form.


Murders in the Rue Morgue seems like an obvious choice to follow Dracula and Frankenstein. After you’ve done Stoker and Shelley it seems natural to move onto Poe. If you’re going to do Poe, then “Murders in the Rue Morgue” would be the one to film. It’s one of the few famous Poe stories that follows something other than his patented “misanthrope goes mad and kills wife/pet/roommate/enemy etc.” storyline. It also seems natural that you would give the project to Robert Florey who had helped develop Frankenstein--your biggest horror hit. While you’re at it, make it a vehicle for the star whose eerie presence helped make Dracula a pop culture phenomenon. Considering all these factors, one wonders why Murders in the Rue Morgue is not a landmark film like the movies that preceded and proceeded it. (Note: for a detailed look at the film’s production and plot look at this piece I wrote for the excellent way back in 2001. Be kind; I was only 18.)

I think there are two main reasons for this film’s failure to captivate audiences in 1932 and it’s failure to become a classic. One of the reasons is that the film has no iconic Monster in it. Erik is the film’s monster but he’s no Monster. A gorilla suit just isn’t iconic as Karloff and Pierce’s Frankenstein monster or any Pierce creation for that matter. There are dozens of films with shoddy gorillas that look just like Erik the ape (who is also played by footage of a real chimpanzee), which makes Erik a pretty dull beast. Plus, Erik has the misfortune of coming out one year before Hollywood truly fell in love with the subject of damsel grabbing gorillas.

Reason number two: the film has a sadistic and perverse side that none of the other Universal horror films (save The Black Cat) possess. The film's inclusion of prostitution, bestiality, and sexual abuse may make horror fans raised on giallo and gore take special note of this clunky old film but it’s kept Dr. Mirakle costumes from becoming Halloween traditions.

I think there might be more than 3 steps between salamander and human. I've seen judgement houses that are more scientifically accurate.

Left turn Erik!

Lugosi's scheme is to mate women with Erik the ape and therefore prove the theory of evolution. He's the rare mad scientist whose main idea is actually true but he's the very common kind of mad scientist whose experiments are a little dodgy.

Lugosi did this instead of Frankenstein. He could have been one of the most iconic characters in modern history. Instead he was evil-unibrow-Garfunkel.

Erik has killed Dr. Mirakle before grabbing a new mate. Like that old lady in Connecticut, Bela learned the hard way that apes make rotten pets.

Universal Appeal: Medium and Low. For fans of the genre who are unfamiliar with moldy oldies, Lugosi’s “2 girls 1 gorilla” experiments may hold interest. The film’s visuals are also of note. Robert Florey would become one of the most interesting directors of low budget thrillers. German Expressionism influenced all of the Universals but its influence is strongest in Murders in the Rue Morgue. Florey and cinematographer Karl Freud created some wonderfully crazed compositions for the film. Also, Lugosi is at his best here. He’s not just chewing the scenery. He’s gnawing and slobbering. He’s got pieces of it stuck in his wig. It’s a lot of fun to watch. What makes the movie less appealing are the terribly dated comic relief and romance scenes. These bring the horror to a halt. Whenever Lugosi is not on screen mugging and screaming about ape love, the film is dreadfully dull. You have to like old movies for being old movies to really enjoy this one despite it’s strengths.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PASSED: VHS covers I will never forget, movies I will never see

I cannot remember the first time I went into a video store. Like church and grandma's house, they were always just there. I would look around the horror section to see if a Godzilla or Frankenstein was lurking among the more salacious titles. Over the years there were certain VHS covers that left an impression. As a child, I was too scared to rent one (plus mom and dad, being sane, would have said no) but now I'm old enough to know that without question the covers are exponentially better than the actual movie.

What prompted these memories was a journey to Richmond's KO Video: a creepy little piece of 1982 preserved in 2009. The carpet was the first thing that got my attention. It's a shade of green that's both dingy and strangely fluorescent at the same time. After, I recovered from the Lovecraftian carpet, I noticed that the place is filled with broken televisions and VCR parts. A dusty display case contains Disney Beta-max and strange electronics with brand names long forgotten. At the horror section, I recognized several childhood cover traumas.

Look at the blurb. "Famous Monster" magazine loved this movie! It was endorsed by Forest Jay Aickerman himself!

I'm sure that this was not a pleasant photo shoot for that actress.

Despite having Vincent Price, I never wanted to check this one out. I thought Elvira was not going to give the material the proper respect it deserved. Seriously.

Screenplay by Gloria Steinem. Who knew?

Rutger Hauer is a future cop fighting a Creature from the Black Lagoon. On second thought, that sounds awesome.

The prequel to Microwave Massacre or Jeff Foxworthy meets Ed Gein?

I heard that the commentary track for the Criterion Collection edition will feature Ned Beatty AND Sheb Wooley.

Fox News is running this as a documentary about Canadian healthcare.

SPECIAL BONUS: A Mickey Rooney Pervtacular Double Feature! With cover art like this, who wouldn't want to rent these cinema treasures:

I got some of these images from here. Whoever keeps the site up is doing God's work.

Insects Have No Politics: PHASE IV Review

My grandfather told me about this movie when I was a kindergartner. I specifically remember his recounting of the scene in which the MENSA ants make little rafts to sail across a moat of gasoline. It sounded like the most amazing thing ever committed to film. Anybody could make a movie about ants on a rampage (The Naked Jungle, Them, It Happened At Lakewood Manor a.k.a Ants! etc.) but it took a real genius to make a film about ants who were also geniuses.

That genius was legendary graphic designer Saul Bass. This is the same Saul Bass who worked with Alfred Hitchcock and invented the modern title sequence. It’s natural to attempt to try to visualize a film before it is viewed. I could not do that with Phase IV. How can you imagine a film about intelligent ants that is directed by the guy who did Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo nightmare?

The plot is simple: scientists build a base to study strange ant activity in the Southwest. Along the way, they take in a young farmer’s daughter whose family was killed by yellow pesticides intended to deter the ants. Bass’ talent as a designer is in full swing here. The most effective scenes are dialogue free and appeal to a sense of unreality and inhumanity that is scary in a much more disorienting way than the traditional sense of dread carried by horror films. The insect photography is top notch. It’s only surpassed by the similarly themed The Hellstrom Chronicle. Ants live right beside us (there’s probably some in my kitchen now) which makes their alien nature so unnerving.

The cause of the ant’s new power is not a chemical spill or atomic radiation but something much more esoteric. It’s time for Earth to move to the next phase and a cosmic force has chosen the ants over the humans. If this sounds very Aquarian, it’s because it is. This is a film that is very firmly in the tradition of 1970’s eco-occultism. I remember and episode of In Search of…. with Leonard Nimoy about people who hooked lie ditectors to plants. Phase IV is of that era. Just look at the posters. This is a movie that made a lot more sense in 1974.

Even though the film is primarily visual, the central performances are strong enough to give a sense of urgency and realism to a pretty outlandish and hippy-dippy premise. Nigel Davenport plays the physically and mentally deteriorating scientist with a ruggedness not seen in many obsessed scientist roles. The great Michael Murphy (of Allen's Manhattan and Altman's Nashville) is the scientist who is simply trying to communicate with the ants so that humanity can be given a second chance. Lynne Frederick does not get much to do besides be terrified by the super-colony and but she provides a beautiful and innocent face that contrasts nicely to the black mandibles of the film's monsters.

Phase IV is not an extremely entertaining film. It can be dull and obtuse. There are portions where the camera lingers a little too long on ant hills. Also, there is a five minute strectch where the base's ant alarm is going off. It’s a godawful sound and I had to mute the TV. I was worried that my neighbors were going to complain. “Sorry, just watching a movie about mystical ants! Won’t happen again!” I do give the filmmaker's credit for boldly making the film so unpleasant.

It’s lens flares and hallucinogenic sequences can date film terribly. I almost expected Billy Jack to show up a start kung-fuing the ants. The film did wind up on and episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This is not completely undeserved. The film's metaphysical pretensions only draw attention to the fact that at the end of the day it's covering the same territory as Bert I. Gordon. It's those pretensions and Bass' graphic compostions, however, that make Phase IV a forgotten classic. It is unusual to find an animal invasion film with such intellect and scope. The film is worth watching if only to see the master title designer tell his own story.

Watch the trailer!

Doctor Who A-Z: A is for Axons

Monday, August 3, 2009

Universal Appeal II: FRANKENSTEIN!

James Whale’s Frankenstein still stands as a classic in both its……ugh I’m going to stop there. Why bother? You know this movie is a great gothic masterpiece. People have been talking about this movie for nearly eighty years. I’m going to skip to the pictures and the Universal Appeal index.

Every film needs to begin with a disclaimer announcing that what you’re about to see may #*&$ your &#!% up.

What should we put on Grandpa’s marker? A sunset? A bass? A tractor? How bouts we get him a giant scary grim reaper statue instead?

“I speak with a 100% certainty when I say my scheme to defy nature and build a freakish looking super-strong giant would have been completely successful if my idiot assistant had gotten the correct brain.

Baron Frankenstein as played by Frederick Kerr is one of the greatest harrumphers to ever harrumph a harrumph.

How amazing would it have been to see that for the first time? Still the greatest film make up design of all time. Don't believe me? Name something better.

Nothing funny here. Great shot of a great set

How abnormal does your brain have to be to not realize a seven year old child weighs more than a flower?

Now it's time for the Busch Gardens Sausage Grasping Dance!

In retrospect, the villagers probably shouldn't have burnt down that windmill. It probably provided a lot of food.

Universal Appeal: Strong. A little slow to modern audiences and its supporting players a little stodgy (with the exception of the Baron) but this one gets high appeal for maintaining its iconic atmosphere. Dracula quickly becomes everything modern viewers hate about old movies but most of Frankenstein would still be recognizable as a movie to audiences familiar with Tim Burton and his imitators. When judging the appeal to modern audiences it’s important to realize they have much more in common with fairy tales and The Corpse Bride than a modern viewer’s idea of horror.

Is too much to hope for a day when Frankensteins are more popular than vampires? Where kids wear neck electrodes to Anime club instead of fangs?

“Parent and town not understand me either. I take you away from all this. Me dangerous yet completely non-threatening. Popular girls and fire no bother us anymore!”